Voices of the Women in the Industry – Women in Restructuring & Insolvency
The Law Society’s Women in Practice Committee’s “Voices of the Women in the Industry” series aims to gather exclusive industry insight from inspirational women in the law. We draw from the perspectives of women in different areas of the legal industry with a core focus on encouraging meaningful dialogue within the legal industry. Our first issue addressed sustainability in legal practice for women in litigation, with insights from Ms Marina Chin Li Yuen SC and Ms Koh Swee Yen SC. This month, we turn the spotlight on the Restructuring & Insolvency (R&I) industry, with a warm and candid conversation between Ms Beverly Wee and Ms Smitha Menon.
Ms Beverly Wee (BW) is, amongst other things, a Director, Senior Assistant Official Assignee, Senior Assistant Official Receiver at the Insolvency & Public Trustee’s Office (better known to all as IPTO). Outside of work, Beverly finds joy in reading, meeting friends, and travelling.
Ms Smitha Menon (SM) is the Head of WongPartnership LLP’s Restructuring & Insolvency Practice and a Partner in the International Arbitration, India and Special Situations Advisory Practices. Her main areas of practice are corporate disputes and restructuring. Smitha shares Beverly’s love of reading, but also loves harassing her niece and nephews.
1. How did you end up practising in the area of restructuring and insolvency?
BW: Funny story that. I was on secondment to the Singapore Academy of Law just prior to my posting to IPTO in September 2004. Toward the end of my secondment, I was told by my then-boss that I would be posted to IPTO. She explained that it was a choice between IPTO and the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore (IPOS), so she selected IPTO for me, and the rest (as they say) is history.
I had very little idea what IPTO did before I took up my posting, to be honest. I was, however, very grateful that I had several friends who had been there for some time, and who were very generous with their time in familiarising me with the work that IPTO did, and guiding this rookie along.
SM: I feel it was meant to be. When I was in university, I had the opportunity to clerk with an insolvency judge from the English High Court but my foolish 20-year-old self opted to travel Europe for the summer instead. I had no understanding of what restructuring and insolvency was or that I would love the subject so much.
When I returned from university and was doing what is now called the “Part B” course, insolvency was one of the modules that had plenty of spaces so I unthinkingly applied for it just to satisfy the course requirements. That turned out to be one of the best uninformed decisions I had made as I was fortunate to have a leading insolvency practitioner as the tutor for the course. He was excellent as his teaching brought the topic alive and made it relevant to more than just an area of law. I found the topic fascinating. In particular, how varying social, political and legal considerations are relevant when it comes to dealing with the situation of insufficient money to go around.
When I started practice, it was a few years before the “Great Recession”, so I had plenty of opportunities as a junior lawyer to handle R&I cases which I thoroughly enjoyed.
2. SM asks BW: Have you ever felt like leaving the practice for another area / another career altogether?
BW: Honestly, no. The work at IPTO is varied, meaningful and interesting and continues to be so. This is especially with myriad changes and developments that have taken place in the past five years, and the continuing growth and development of the law and practice in this area going forward – the latest being the changes brought about by the Courts Reform Act 2021 which clarified the jurisdiction of the SICC to hear insolvency matters and, of course, the appointment of Judge Christopher Sontchi to our bench of international judges.
To be fair, IPTO isn’t all about insolvency as well. Here, I would like to give a shout out to my colleagues in the other business divisions of IPTO that carry out the work that we do under our other hats, i.e. the hats of the Public Trustee and Registrar of Moneylenders and Pawnbrokers.
3. BW asks SM: Do you think there are any particular areas of this practice that might be more difficult for a woman?
SM: At present, the industry is male-dominated and that does pose some challenges particularly when it comes to networking and relationship building. I don’t think these challenges are any different in other industries with a similar demographic. A small silver lining from the last two years of COVID-19 is that the playing field seems to have levelled a bit more as the only means of assessing someone and forming impressions was through the work product, and that’s gender-blind.
On the R&I industry specifically, I do find it disconcerting that bright young women “disappear” after reaching mid-level seniority. I wonder if part of the reason for the burnout is feeling a lack of support from the industry. For myself, my firm has always been extremely supportive and being engaged and involved with other women in the industry, in particular, through the International Women’s Insolvency & Restructuring Confederation (IWIRC), adds to having a community that is there to support you. I strongly encourage all aspiring R&I practitioners to join IWIRC.
BW: I haven’t felt particularly advantaged or disadvantaged in my career because of gender! I think that the practice of law (insolvency or otherwise) is gender-neutral. Whether you are good at it, or do well at it, has nothing to do at all with gender but everything to do with interest, ability, and the drive to do the job well.
4. BW asks SM: How do you balance the demands of work and family life? Do you think that work has eaten into your personal life?
SM: Work always intrudes on your personal life if you are a lawyer! I do not think it is helpful to focus on what is the right balance as this constantly evolves depending on your work seniority and what stage you may be in when it comes to your personal life. Instead, I have always focused on sustainability. Identify the two or five things that are fundamental to your happiness or sense of wellbeing (it could be activities or people) and make sure they are incorporated in your routine life. That makes practice not just sustainable, but it helps you stay motivated and avoid burnout. Taking some things slower on occasion and not taking up every opportunity because you refuse to compromise on your “fundamental” things is perfectly fine.
As cliched as it sounds, practice really is a marathon, not a sprint. There will be plenty of other opportunities and occasions when you can gear up without feeling like it came at the expense of something else.
BW: I do this with difficulty, and with great care! Personally, my take on work-life balance is that some days or months, the balance tilts toward work (and stays there for a good long while). Some days or months, it tilts in favour of life. There will never (famous last words) be a time when perfect balance is achieved. So, during the times when the balance is tilted in favour of life, I savour it! When the balance tilts toward work, I look forward to the time when it tilts back in favour of life.
5. SM asks BW: Have your motivations or inspirations, whether as a woman generally or as a specialist in this field, changed over time?
BW: Not really, no. Having only been in the public service, my motivation is that the work I do is of practical application and well, helps people. So, whether it is law reform in the corporate insolvency space, or in the personal insolvency space, as long as it helps someone, all is good.
6. BW asks SM: What are some ways you have protected your team members’ welfare in order to encourage them to have a sustainable practice?
SM: We recognise that it is hard for team members to have control over their time given the limited agency they have when it comes to client demands and work responsibilities. To ensure that all the associates can take time to devote to their professional development, we actively encourage our juniors to take regular down time intervals during which they can focus on their professional development. At set intervals, associates are to take a few days to focus on developing their knowledge (and the subject matter need not be limited to the law). During that time, the rest of the team (in particular the lead partners) step in to pick up any work that needs to be covered.
Another aspect of a sustainable practice is having a reason to stay and that tends to be your colleagues. To create more opportunities for the team to build relationships with their colleagues outside of work, we have bonding sessions in small groups that rotate monthly.
BW: I am a great believer of taking breaks when the opportunity arises. So, whenever there is opportunity for some down time, I do encourage my team members to take it. I am, also, a great believer in taking personal responsibility, i.e. the timelines, the expectations and expected outcomes are made known of each and every one of my team members, but they are responsible for managing themselves and their workload.
Conversely, if they can’t cope, I also encourage them to speak up early so that as a team, we can find ways to help him or her out before it becomes overwhelming. There should be no stigma attached to a request for help. There will be times when we need a helping hand. We should, therefore, also give it freely if a colleague and friend is brave enough to ask. There is a great degree of trust that goes both ways.
7. SM asks BW: What are your thoughts on the need for diversity in this practice?
BW: I totally welcome increasing diversity in the insolvency space, actually. Not just in gender terms but diversity of experience, expertise, and views. Diversity is what makes us, as a practice area, stronger in the long run by opening our minds to perspectives hitherto unfamiliar and directions that may be uncharted.
8. SM asks BW: Do you think role models or mentors are still relevant today? If so, what attributes should aspiring professionals look at in selecting a role model or mentor?
BW: Personally, I can’t say I had a mentor or role model per se. I did have good supervisors (both male and female) whom I worked well with and had a great deal of respect for. Each of them had various qualities, behaviours and principles/values (if you will) that resonated with me, and which I try and have tried to emulate/incorporate into how I work with my team.
Are role models or mentors still relevant today? Absolutely! Role models show each of us what we want (or don’t want) to be when we “grow up”. Mentors share with us the benefit of their experience. So, if you have had a good role model or mentor, please pay it forward!
9. SM asks BW: How do you see the next five years panning out for you?
BW: I look forward to planning my retirement? On a more serious note – I see myself still muddling about in this area, focussing perhaps more on the law reform aspects as there is still so much to learn.
10. BW asks SM: Looking back at your career so far, is there anything you would have done differently?
SM: At times when I was junior, I missed out on opportunities because of self-doubt. I wish I had known then that imposter syndrome was something a lot of women experienced and is something we should actively work against. How about you?
BW: Not at all for me! I was posted to IPTO not knowing much about insolvency. I think that helped because it meant everything was new and interesting, and it was a great learning opportunity with the guidance of my colleagues and supervisors. In the past 18 years, I have made some good friends both from the private and public sector, learned a lot from all of them and been given opportunities to work on areas of the law that I would never have been able to but for my posting. So there is nothing that I would have done differently.
11. Finally, please share two tips each, for women in their late 20s / early 30s, on finding traction in your career.
BW: In your 20s, the world is your oyster! Go out, try new things, and experience and learn from each encounter as much as you can. Whilst I won’t go so far as to say that you have all the time in the world, I would say the runway is still long enough that you can afford a bit of time to explore what really interests you (and determine what doesn’t) and build that network of friends and acquaintances. I would also say be humble and recognise that there will always be something that someone can teach you, or something that you can learn from someone. The learning never stops, ever.
In your 30s, it’s probably time to start thinking about who you are as a practitioner, what values that you would like to inculcate and see shaping your practice and team, and who you are as a leader.
SM: First, don’t pigeonhole yourself. The work you are given does not need to set the parameters or boundaries of what your practice area is. You can and should be open to learning new things. Trying to develop capability in different aspects of your chosen work area or even in different areas could be complementary to, or facilitate a beneficial pivot from, your area of practice later on.
Be thick skinned! The opinions of others may not always be informed or fair and shouldn’t define you. Know yourself and your strengths and weaknesses and parse criticism so you can take in what is helpful without feeling debilitated. Surrounding yourself with people who have strengths in areas you don’t (and vice-versa) can also facilitate more successful outcomes when you collaborate.